A Store’s Possible Liability for COVID-19
As of mid-April, over 40 grocery store employees have died from COVID-19. It’s not only workers who can get sick in stores — for many people in quarantine, grocery shopping is the one time they forego social distancing. While stores can be held liable for dangerous conditions, plaintiffs may run into causation issues if they file a personal injury lawsuit against the owners.
A Business’ Obligation to Its Customers
When you walk into a store or a company that’s set up to serve the public, you become a business invitee. This means that the store owes you its own duty of care. The same thing is true in any premises liability case, such as a slip and fall or negligent security case. The second you walk into a store, you become a business visitor whether you make a purchase or not.
The general obligation of a business is to keep the property safe for those who enter. This includes repairing any dangerous conditions and keeping the property free of hazards. The obligation is not limited to just physical hazards such as wet floors. It may also include keeping the store sanitary. When it comes to COVID-19, there’s the possibility of a lawsuit against the store if the conditions in the establishment were unsanitary.
Can Stores Be Held Liable?
If there’s a dangerous condition at the store, the owners absolutely can be held liable for any resulting injury. Presumably, this would include contracting coronavirus while on the premises of a business. You would see this occurring more often with employees who are at the store for prolonged periods, but there’s the possibility that customers could get sick as well since all it takes is momentary exposure.
Stores may not be enforcing CDC and federal government guidelines regarding how to keep shoppers and employees safe. Furthermore, many owners are not as vigilant as they should be about complying with state orders for limiting capacity. All of these could be a factor in determining whether a store has complied with its obligation to provide a safe environment for its business invitees.
General premises liability laws require stores to protect their customers from illnesses, which means that they must follow guidelines.
The Difficulty in Proving Causation
One of the difficulties that sick customers may face after filing a personal injury lawsuit is proving that they contracted COVID-19 from the conditions at a business. This is easier to do when one is an employee who works at the business. It is more difficult to prove when the customer was in the store for an hour or less.
Causation is still a required element of a personal injury lawsuit. One will need to prove that they would not have been injured but for the negligent actions of the store. In the COVID-19 context, they would need to show that they contracted the disease while at the store. This has to be more than mere speculation.
The fact that COVID-19 is a pandemic will make proving causation in a lawsuit that much more difficult. It would be much easier to demonstrate if you were on a cruise ship or in some other confined space for a longer period of time. Proof of the store’s failure to follow guidelines is only a part of the liability picture. You will need to show by a preponderance of the evidence that you got COVID-19 while at the business. Without an extensive contact tracing capability, this will be a challenge that must be overcome.
Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer
If you would like to further discuss if you can hold a store or business legally accountable for a case of COVID-19, contact a personal injury lawyer at Rebenack Aronow & Mascolo, L.L.P. Call our office in New Brunswick, NJ, at (732) 247-3600 today to schedule your free consultation. You can reach our Somerville, NJ, office at (908) 448-2560.